Monday, February 21, 2011

A&S 50: 10 - Spindle from Coppergate Finds

Spinning fibers into thread is one of the most basic and time consuming steps in the textile production process. Nearly every woman during the Viking period would have learned to spin at an early age, and would likely have owned many spindles during the course her life. It is not surprising then than spindle whorls are such a common, though frequently misidentified, archeological find.

Surviving Viking-age spindle whorls are made from a wide range of materials, including different types of stone, pottery, glass, bone and antler, amber, and metal with stone being the most common. It is interesting to note that in her analysis of whorls found at Hedeby, Anderson identified ceramic as the most commonly used material. This seems to be somewhat exceptional, as stone is more common at the other sites she examines and at the Coppergate site discussed in Walton. Whorls could be made in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the preference of the spinner, intended use and local custom. According to Anderson's analysis, weights range from less than 5 grams to well over 50 grams, with the most common weight range being between 10 and 30 grams. Diameter can range anywhere from 2 centimeter to over 10 centimeter, with most soapstone whorls falling in the 3 to 5 centimeter range.

Whorl shape varied tremendously, from flat disc shapes, to round, to conical or even bi-conical. The most common during the Viking period seems to have been plano-convex, that is, one flat and one rounded side. The rounded side can range from hemispheric to bun shaped. Based on the wear to the center holes, it appears that the flat side of such whorls would have faced towards the center of the spindle shaft.

It appears that stone whorls in particular could be made in several different ways. The simplest method would be to drill a hole through an appropriately shaped stone, and the most sophisticated would involve the use of a lathe. Based on surviving examples, it is clear that some whorls were carefully shaped on a lathe, but many others were cut and shaped by hand using simple tools. Soapstone in particular is very easy to shape to in this way. The finished whorl could then be left plain or decorated with bands and hashes as the maker saw fit. Once completed, the whorl would be fitted to a shaft.

Comparatively few spindle shafts have survived, but those that have are made of a variety of hard and soft woods, yew, oak, pine, birch and ash being but a few. The shafts are generally tapered so that the whorl is held in place with nothing more than friction and careful fitting. Some are notched at one or both ends, others are not. Based on an examination of the whorl holes, it appears that the diameter of most shafts typically ranged from seven to twelves millimeters. It is difficult to determine how long the shafts might have been, one surviving shafts is as long as 30 centimeters, other as short as 13.

It is not clear how spindle shafts were shaped and finished. At least some were likely lathe-turned. Others might have been shaped by hand from suitable sticks. They do not seem to have had a great deal of decoration on them, though a few have been found with what appear to be decorative grooves around the middle (though some of these may be wear marks from snug-fitting whorls as suggested in Anderson) and sticks which may be spindles were found in Bergen with elaborate knob terminals. It seems likely that they would have been as smoothly finished as possible, so as to prevent fine threads from snagging on the wood.

In reproducing this spindle, I elected to work with soapstone. Soapstone was readily available in Northern Europe and soapstone whorls have been found all over Viking Age Europe. It is also very easy to carve and shape and can be worked with wood tools. The actual soapstone used came from a craft store and had been rough-shaped by a friend into a disk using a circle cutter. I elected to shape this into a plano-convex whorl, as this is most common, and also seemed easier to shape and balance than some of the other options. The finished spindle measures just under 5 centimeters in diameter and weights 50 grams, falling well within the range of common extant examples, if on the larger side of average.

The initial shaping had produced a rather crooked disk with a hole through the center, which I shaped and smoothed using a saw and different grades of sandpaper. I then straighten the center hole using my Dremel, as I did not have a rasp of the appropriate shape and size. I finished the whorl with a small amount of beeswax based polish to give the stone a bit more shine. It is not clear if any of the extant whorls were polished or waxed in any way, but many have a very smooth finish and decorative carving so it seems reasonable to take an extra step to enhance the beauty of the piece. Some of the soapstone whorls, in particular that found at L'anse Aux Meadows were made from old cooking pots and have oil residue on them as a result but I was unable to find mention of any other oil or wax being employed on a whorl.

The spindle shaft was shaped using sandpaper from a purchased dowel cut to length. Once the desired shape had been achieved and the whorl fit, I cut my notch and finely sanded the shaft and finished it with the same beeswax polish to provide a smooth finish that would not snag my thread as I spun. The spindle shaft is 9 millimeters wide and 19 centimeters long, about average based on extant examples.

While I did much of my shaping of both the whorl and the shaft using coarse sandpaper as that is what I had at hand, it is more likely that this would have been accomplished with files and rasps in period. It would certainly be easier to shape the stone with files, and the shaping would proceed more quickly, though using a slower process was probably for the best on my first attempt. As I plan to make more whorls in the future, I plan to invest in a good set of files and rasps to make this easier. I would also like to explore shaping the stone and the shafts on a lathe, as this would make it easier to get a balanced shape. The most challenging part of the shaping process is drilling the central hole, as this must be centered and perpendicular to the flat side of the whorl. It seems that drilling the hole first, then shaping around the hole on a lathe would be the simplest way to get an even, well-balanced whorl.

Even working with comparatively unsophisticated equipment, I was able to produce a quite serviceable spindle. There is a small amount of wobble when the spindle turns too quickly, which I suspect could be minimized by shortening the shaft or adjusting the notch. My whorl ended up weighting in at 50 grams, which is on the heavier side, but still allows me to produce a reasonably fine wool thread. It is interesting to note that this qualifies as a fairly light spindle by modern standards.


Anderson, Eva. Excavation in the Black Earth 1990-1995; Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby. The Birka Project, Stockholm, 2003.

Østergård, Else. Woven Into the Earth: Textiles From Norse Greenland. Aarhus University Press, 2004.

Walton, Penelope. The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The York Archaeological Trust, 1997.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn. Medieval North European Spindles and Whorls ( Last accesses January 17, 2011.

Gaslee, Sarah. Viking Textile Tools ( Last accessed January 18, 2011.

Williamson, Roland. Regia Anglorum: Stoneworking ( Last accessed January 18, 2011.

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